Synthetic Highs – is a ban the solution?

Drug use harms communities and destroys the lives of people who become addicted to them. Drug addiction is a waste of human potential. So it’s understandable that many people – including Mana Party activists – have been campaigning hard to ban synthetics. They can see the damage cannabis abuse does already, and they see the problems these legal highs bring. But banning synthetic drugs will only bolster the power of the state and the police to imprison even more Maori. Key has only backed the ban because it fits his agenda of blaming poverty on the poor.

Regardless of the intentions of the campaigners, the logic of the “ban drugs” rhetoric leads to blaming drug users instead of the system that breeds poverty, gross inequality, unemployment, and frustration. People turn to drugs precisely because they feel powerless and alienated. We have so little control of our lives that drugs are used to relax, get happy and avoid our problems. And the more frustrated and hopeless we feel, the greater the attraction of escape.

But after watching the Campbell Live coverage of synthetic drugs, you’d be forgiven if you came away thinking that it’s solely a Maori problem. Maori are routinely demonized as part of New Zealand’s racist criminal injustice system.

Politicians from all across the political spectrum have come out in support of banning synthetic drugs. It’s a move that also seems to have widespread support in poor communities, as marches and pickets across the country in the last few months have shown.

Will a ban help? As the users interviewed on Campbell Live argued, an outright ban would simply push synthetic drugs underground to the black market. New Zealand Drug Foundation Executive Director Ross Bell agrees: “As we’ve seen before with previous bans, retailers hold firesales for products and consumers stockpile those. There’s an added risk that people will binge, or use higher quantities prior to the ban. Predictably, many of these products will make it onto the black market, over which the government has little control”.

It is galling to see the National Party and its poodle Peter Dunne crying crocodile tears about the toll synthetic drugs have taken on the community. As if these parties care at all about the lives of ordinary people: The Key government has relentlessly pursued an anti-beneficiary, anti-working class agenda.

Synthetic drugs take a toll, it’s true. But alcohol is still the most damaging drug. Criminalizing or banning certain drugs won’t help anyone. Alcohol contributes to more health problems, road accidents, and violence in and outside the home. But no one is calling for a ban on alcohol.

The Taranaki Daily News reported that: “Between 1 October 2012 and 31 January 2014 there were 102 adult referrals for synthetic cannabis to the Taranaki District Health Board’s Drug and Alcohol Service. Over the same period 301 adults were referred for problems stemming from “organic” cannabis and 774 for alcohol.” The same pattern is true nationally.

Criminalizing drugs is strongly linked with racism. As the Campbell Live interview shows, Maori are stereotyped as drug users, and drugs are blamed for their poverty, crime and social dysfunction. Maori are far more likely than Pakeha to be arrested and convicted of drug offences, and given longer sentences.

In conclusion, we are against prohibition – but that doesn’t mean we are advocating drug abuse.

Drug laws give powers to the police and courts to arrest and lock up working-class youth – especially Maori. Drug laws are part of a system of mass incarceration and are enforced in racist ways. The best response to the synthetic drug industry is to legalise the drugs they imitate.

But an argument against prohibition is not an argument in favour of drug use. Cannabis abuse – like binge drinking – is a product of alienation and despair. It leads to paranoia, demoralization and apathy when we want those oppressed by the system to be angry, active and focused.

But just telling people off about the evils of drug abuse will convince no one. Moralism is a dead-end. We need to help create real alternatives – the revival of social movements and a mood of resistance – to make the release of drugs less attractive.

We need to be fighting the system, not finding chemical fixes (organic or synthetic) to cope with life under its rule. Opposing legal highs by giving the state more power won’t help with that.